So it goes: Covid and Slaughterhouse-Five

by Bob Schwartz

Dresden 1945

Kurt Vonnegut was a gifted and productive writer. Yet after witnessing the firebombing of Dresden in World War II, it took him decades to include the experience in a book.

He wrote in the opening pages of Slaughterhouse-Five:

 When I got home from the Second World War twenty-three years ago, I thought it would be easy for me to write about the destruction of Dresden, since all I would have to do would be to report what I had seen. And I thought, too, that it would be a masterpiece or at least make me a lot of money, since the subject was so big.

But not many words about Dresden came from my mind then—not enough of them to make a book, anyway. And not many words come now, either, when I have become an old fart with his memories and his Pall Malls, with his sons full grown….

Over the years, people I’ve met have often asked me what I’m working on, and I’ve usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden.

I said that to Harrison Starr, the movie-maker, one time, and he raised his eyebrows and inquired, “Is it an anti-war book?”

“Yes,” I said. “I guess.”

“You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?”

“No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?”

“I say, ‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?’”

What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too.

And even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.

Vonnegut did write that novel about Dresden, the unforgettable and indescribable Slaughterhouse-Five. In it, he included a sort of mantra, a verbal punctuation, that appears more than a hundred times: So it goes.

When I see reports, or fail to see reports, about the continuing losses in the American war against covid, those words pop up: So it goes.

Dresden was a horror that killed 25,000 people, for no good strategic reason. Covid has killed about a million Americans, many of those deaths preventable through more disciplined public policies and behaviors. So it goes.

So it goes, because it is now obvious that given the differences among Americans in their will to fight the virus, instead of each other, we will be trudging through this mess indefinitely, with victories here, losses there, death and sickness everywhere. And it appears that nothing is going to change that.

So it goes.